NEWARK – Congressman Donald M. Payne, Jr. ascended to his position in what he termed the “worst way possible.” In 2012, he was serving as the president of the Newark city council when his father passed away after a battle with colon cancer. Now, the younger Payne says his father’s death has inspired him to get healthy and bring health to the people he serves.
PolitickerNJ sat down with Congressman Payne to discuss that renewed focus on health, the legacy of President Barack Obama and the future of the Newark, the state of New Jersey and the U.S. as a whole.
“I have not necessarily been the picture of health myself,” said Payne who struggles with both diabetes and high blood pressure. “I had a foot infection in February that was operated on and cleaned out but, because of my diabetes and my non-compliance over 20 years, to this day the foot is not healed.”
Combined with his father’s struggles—which inspired Payne to push Obama to declare March National Colorectal Health Month—his own struggles with health have made Payne’s focus on healthcare all the more real.
“The doctors told me they were going to do everything they could to save my foot,” said Payne who now wears a medical boot on his right leg due to the still-healing infection. “I am very fortunate because I have very high-quality health care. But what about the person that shows up at a hospital without health care, without insurance? The doctor rather than saying, ‘Sir, we are going to do everything we can so save your foot’ will say ‘Well, that foot has to come off.’ So I fight.”
For Payne, that fight comes in the form of his ardent support of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).
“There is nothing special about me that everyone shouldn’t be treated the same way and that is what I fight for,” Payne said. “People have been trying to get universal health care in this country for 50 years. Barack Obama did it.”
Congressman Payne believes that President Obama’s step to make healthcare universal to all Americans is just one of the reasons that the sitting president will go down in history as one of the “top ten presidents this country has ever known.”
“Look at what he has accomplished with people being against him every step of the way,” said Payne referring to a Congress he feels has been unreasonably resistant to the Democratic president’s policies. “What is it about this president that this Congress just refuses to do anything? Nothing of any substance is moving through the House.”
Payne has also been supportive of Obama’s much-contested Iran Nuclear Deal.
“Diplomacy is always better than war,” Payne said. “People bring up the notion that we can’t trust Iran. Do we trust China? Do we trust Russia?”
For Payne, it is past instances like this that demonstrate a “winning strategy.”
Payne said, “In those other two instances, when President Nixon went to China and opened relationships with them in the 70s, things got better. When President Reagan negotiated with Gorbachev, it made things better. So why change a winning strategy that has worked with other enemies of this country?”
Looking to the end of Obama’s presidential tenure, Payne Jr. has announced he will be supporting former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as she seeks the Presidency. Though Vice President Joe Biden—to whom Payne is close—has been rumored to be potentially entering the race, Payne said he does not believe that time should be wasted on “hypotheticals” and has, instead, decided to focus all attention on Clinton.
“I have a very close relationship with the Clintons,” Payne told PolitickerNJ. “Vice President Biden has always been a great friend and mentor to me and, on the occasions I have had to speak with him, he has been very supportive. It would make it tough [if he entered the race] but he is not in the race, Secretary Clinton is.”
According to Payne, Clinton is the right person to address an issue he feels is one of the most critical the U.S. is currently facing: race relations.
“I think that Black Lives Matter has crystallized the issue and brought it to the forefront. People cannot side step it anymore, it is in your face and demanding some type of response,” Payne said. “I think it was very gracious and astute of the Secretary to take time out and sit with the members of Black Lives Matter.”
While fellow New Jerseyan and former Mayor of Payne’s home town of Newark, U.S. Senator Cory Booker is rumored to be a potential running mate for Clinton if she gets the nomination, Payne said it is “too early” to have an opinion on Booker’s viability for the position. Though Payne said he understands why Booker would be “in the mix.”
“It is a political realism, though, that two Northeasterners may not make the best ticket,” said Payne, agreeing with remarks Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9) made last month.
And Payne knows Booker well. Before he was elected to the Senate in 2013, Booker served as Mayor in Newark from 2006 to 2013. Now, his position has been filled by Ras Baraka, a mayor who Payne initially did not support as he sought the election.
“Once the election is over the people decide who they want as their leader it is incumbent upon us to step up and work with the people that our constituents have chosen as their leaders,” Payne said.
According to Payne, he and Baraka have been working together, citing a mutual desire reform Newark’s education program to bring local control back to parents and local officials.
For Payne, the future looks bright. Though he said he has “no interest” in seeking the soon-to-be-open gubernatorial position, Payne believes he has been “very fortunate” during his time as a Congressman.
Next? Payne hopes to continue his father’s legacy, focus on constituent services and be the “best congressperson” he can be.